Self-Driving Tanks

The US Army spent about a month this summer testing self-driving combat vehicles, and is pretty bullish on the results. Major Cory Wallace, one of the test leaders, concluded:

“There’s no reason why we are using humans to breach complex obstacles while under fire. We have the technology to be better. The technology on our cars is often better than what we have on some of the combat platforms today. I am very excited to see that paradigm shift.”

The write-ups I’ve seen on this testing focus on the harm-reduction aspects of the technology, as does Major Wallace. Nonetheless, I would imagine there are potential performance enhancements the military might gain by automating fighting vehicles.

The analogy that jumps out at me is agriculture, where the real benefit of autonomous tractors and other farm equipment comes from precision, which leads to increased crop yields. The benefit from labor reduction is less important in that context.

In the short-run, I can certainly see why the military might use robots instead of humans for tasks like bomb disposal or scouting, even if the performance is inferior. Better to risk an automated tank that a platoon.

But in the long run I would imagine these vehicles will outperform manual drivers and gunners. That increased performance could cut two ways simultaneously: on the one hand, precision would hopefully mean less collateral damage and fewer civilian casualties; on the other hand, the Terminator 2 scenario comes to mind.


My former colleague Art Gillespie, who is was a US Army soldier and is now an autonomous vehicle engineer, provides insightful commentary:

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